The virtual private network (VPN) has been around since 1996. At first, it was primarily used by businesses to allow remote employees to securely access local corporate network resources across the internet. Today, this is still one of the primary uses for a VPN. VPNs have continued to gain popularity among individual internet users due to the security and anonymity they provide. Some studies suggest 25 percent of internet users take advantage of VPN technology.

When connecting to the internet using a computer, tablet or smartphone, it is joining a gigantic public network that connects the world. Consider the internet as a highway system connecting cities and states across the country. When traveling on the highway, there are other vehicles on the same roads and drivers can see what you’re doing. Others can see what exits you take, where you stop and what places you frequently visit.

When using a VPN, it is like having a private underground tunnel directly to your destination. No one can see or follow you; it is a dedicated lane that is encrypted. While a VPN can be used for many different purposes, the main function is to provide encryption for the data being transmitted.

When using a VPN client (software allowing you to connect to a VPN server) you have the option to select from many different servers across the globe. The server you connect to is the location from which you appear to originate. For instance, if you live in Illinois and connect to a VPN server in China, all your traffic appears to originate from China, not Illinois. This is because your browsing session assumes the IP address of the VPN server connection. When connecting to the internet, your computer is assigned a number known as an IP address. This address can provide information about you and your physical location. Let’s look at practical reasons to consider using a VPN.

Internet privacy is a concern for many today. When connecting to the internet using a public network, such as a coffee shop or airport, your activity is broadcast for anyone to intercept. For peace of mind while browsing on public networks, a VPN might be the solution. The anonymity from using a VPN can reduce the targeted advertisements you may be receiving. A VPN will not completely prevent them but can help. Also, when traveling to a country that blocks services like Netflix, a VPN circumvents geo restrictions.

When deciding to use a VPN, there are a couple considerations. Due to necessary processing power to encrypt data, and the routes being used, a VPN will inherently slow down internet speed. Don’t be fooled by “free” VPNs. These will either be peppered with ads or sell your information. These usually hide your IP address and don’t protect your privacy. If you are serious about taking advantage of a VPN, subscribe to a reputable service which will charge you a minimal fee, usually $2-$5/month.

While a VPN is no silver bullet when it comes to internet security, it is definitely a tool worth adding to your box.